How To Order All Your Favorite Asian Dishes (Without Sacrificing A Gluten-Free Diet)
If you follow a gluten-free diet, you probably know that soy sauce, which in the United States typically contains wheat, is in the majority of the Chinese food you may come across (and can’t eat!).
Looking for gluten-free Chinese food, without having to whip out a recipe book? Instead of avoiding Chinese restaurants, check out these ordering tips below to help you ensure your Chinese food (as well as some other tough cuisines) is safe and gluten-free.
1. Chinese food
Mind that sauce.
In the United States, almost all sauces and marinades in Chinese food contain soy sauce. If it doesn’t contain soy sauce specifically, it’ll most likely contain another sauce with a soy sauce base (fish sauce, hoisin sauce, and oyster sauce, for instance). A good rule of thumb is that anything slightly brown in color has probably been touched by soy sauce. Pro tip: Tamari and Sriracha is a delicious sauce combination that's gluten-free. Feel free to bring it with you whenever you go out for Chinese food.
Ask if it's breaded.
Depending on the restaurant, you may find some sauces that are not brown at all and don't contain any soy sauce. Cornstarch, which is gluten-free, is often used as the thickener, rather than flour. However, if the dish is deep-fried, it could also be breaded, so be sure to ask whether it is breaded or just directly fried in oil.
Avoid items like dumplings.
If you love dumplings or dim sum, I'm going to have to disappoint you here, too. Most dumplings are made with a wheat-based skin. Even if the skins are made with rice-paper, there can be wheat mixed in, it’s likely safest to avoid dumplings all-together.
You could try asking the waitstaff to check the ingredients on the package of the dumpling skins, but your best bet is to ask for steamed vegetables and maybe fish, but make sure to ask for no sauce. That’s where the tamari-Sriracha combination comes in!
2. Korean food
Korean food can be just as difficult as Chinese food on a gluten-free diet. Like Chinese food, many Korean dishes use a soy sauce base, and most meats are marinated in soy sauce.
One exception, however, is kimchi and kimchi-based dishes. I've found that most kimchi does not contain soy sauce, but it's always safest to ask, as they often contain fish sauce, which may or may not have a gluten base. If you buy kimchi at the store, look for gluten-free on the label. Plus, kimchi is a fermented food, which means it has the added benefit of lots of healthy bacteria.
3. Japanese food
With sushi, it’s relatively easy to eat gluten-free, since the soy sauce usually isn't hidden in the dish; it's either drizzled on top in the form of a sauce (e.g., ponzu or a sweet brown sauce used on some rolls) or you dip your rolls in yourself.
One exception is tamago (a sweet egg-based sushi); the preparation of this egg is actually quite complex and involves wheat flour.
So before you go for sushi, you might want to call ahead and make sure they have gluten-free tamari on-hand. If they don't, you can bring your own and make sure they know not to add any extra sauce to your sushi. Outside of sushi, the same general rule applies: If it's got a brown sauce or marinade, you might want to stay away.
You might also want to be aware of soba noodles. Although their primary ingredient is buckwheat (which is gluten-free), many manufacturers also mix in wheat flour, so it might be worth it to check those labels. Tempura and breaded foods also contain either wheat flour or panko (Japanese breadcrumbs), so avoid those items as well if you’re following a strict gluten-free diet.
4. Vietnamese food
Similar to other East Asian cuisines, the main starch in Vietnamese food is rice-based. However, even pho—the popular Vietnamese noodle soup dish made with rice noodles—often contains soy sauce in the broth.
But don't despair; other dishes that don't include a broth but still use the rice noodles or rice (e.g., vermicelli bowls, salads, rice bowls) could be safe, just be sure to ask about the sauce!
5. Thai food
Thai food contains many gluten-free options. Of course, there are lots of stir-fried dishes that use a soy sauce base as well, but a lot of classic Thai dishes don’t use soy sauce at all.
Pad Thai, for example, is a noodle dish made with rice noodles that typically uses a sweeter sauce with no soy sauce. However, some places may use soy or fish sauce, so it’s always best to ask the waiter when eating out. There are also popular soups (e.g., tom yum) and meat dishes (e.g., BBQ chicken) that don't use soy sauce, although be sure to ask whether the fish sauce is soy sauce-based. Also be aware of the restaurant’s peanut sauce, as there is often soy sauce mixed in.
With these tips, hopefully you’ll be able to ask the right questions to ensure your dish is gluten free. Luckily in this day and age, many restaurants are very accommodating to different types of dietary preferences, where the menu may already come with a pre-labeled gluten-free section. If you are unsure or have any questions about how something is prepared, don’t be shy and talk to the waiter. They are very knowledgeable about how dishes are prepared, and can always check with the chef for even more information.
If you have celiac disease or are extremely sensitive, watch out for cross-contamination at the table. Many of these cuisines could be served family-style, so be sure that each dish has its own serving spoon and that your companions don't double-dip utensils.
It’s important to note that these tips touch on some of the popular East Asian dishes in the United States—you could find lots of other dishes (some even gluten-free!) in authentic, regional restaurants. And if all else fails, there’s always some gluten-free recipes to fall back on.